Another Margaret Atwood Adaptation Shines on Netflix

Alias Grace is preferable to a new, terrible S.W.A.T. reboot.


  • 'Alias Grace'
    'Alias Grace,' Netflix

    S.W.A.T. CBS. Thursday, November 2, 10 p.m.

  • Alias Grace. Available November 3 on Netflix.

Whether it's a metaphor or an omen, the confluence of the debuts of CBS' S.W.A.T. and Netflix's Alias Grace this week is painful. Broadcast television is showcasing its antiquary status by wrapping up its fall season with a tepid remake of a failed 1970s cop drama, while Netflix, the model of TV's future, offers a subtle, layered dissection of the nature of truth wrapped inside a macabre double-murder.

The most remarkable thing about Alias Grace may not even be its content, though that's quite extraordinary, but that it's the second time in six months that Canadian author Margaret Atwood, now tiptoeing toward her 80th birthday, has had one of her books adapted into a miniseries. Who knew literary feminism could be so profitable?

Except that's far too narrow a label to pin on Atwood. The intellectual underpinnings of her work are more complex and elusive than many of her fans recognize. Men often behave badly in her novels, but so do women. Like The Handmaid's Tale, which is as much a critique of totalitarianism as it is of male supremacy, Alias Grace abounds with ideas about a host of subjects in addition to feminism: Class. Poverty. Penology. Religion. Epistemology.

All this is packaged in a fictionalized account of the 1843 murder of a wealthy Canadian land owner and his housekeeper by two other members of the household staff. The killers, a stable hand named James McDermott and an oft-mistreated maid named Grace Marks, fled to the United States, but were captured. McDermott, who confessed but blamed Marks for egging him on, was executed. Marks, who said she had lost all memory of the crime, was confined to an asylum.

Alias Grace opens 15 years after the murders. A group of Methodist gentry, seeking a pardon for Marks, has hired Dr. Simon Jordan—an alienist, as early psychologists were called—to investigate the case in hopes of proving she was not sane at the time of the crime.

After the opening moments, almost everything that happens in Alias Grace is told through the framing device of her lengthy conversations with Jordan. And it's immediately apparent that as a narrator, she's far from reliable, evading some of his questions, falsifying her answers to others.

The obvious question is whether Grace's equivocations are an attempt to take back some control over a life that has long been usurped by her father, her employers, and the masters of the bone-breaking penal and mental institutions to which she has been confined. Or is she trying to conceal something?

Her own musings are ambivalent. The sincerity of the doctor's gentle and largely sympathetic interrogations, she notes in a letter to a friend, make her feel like an overripe peach, ready to burst and spill its contents. But, she reminds herself: "Inside the peach is a stone."

On the other side of this unbalanced equation, Dr. Jordan is increasingly subsumed in fantasies about his patient. But are they born of romance? Or—as she suspects—is the brutality of her life functioning as a sort of misery-porn for a man secretly thrilled by tales of female subjugation?

Much of Alias Grace was scripted by Atwood herself, and it shares her literary sensibilities more than any other screen adaptation of her work. What might have been a rather talky script is enlivened by the peerless performances of Sarah Gadon (who played the romantically doomed librarian in the Hulu miniseries production of 11.22.63) as the wan but flinty Grace and Canadian TV regular Paul Gross as the bewildered Dr. Jordan.

The story is certainly told in feminist tones—occasionally accusatory, sometimes only chiding. But Grace has more to contend with than the patriarchy.

She's afflicted by the British class system, retained to a far greater degree in loyalist Canada than the renegade United States (longing gazes across the border are a regular occurrence). And she's confounded by the dominant Calvinist strain of Canadian Protestantism, which she simultaneously embraces ("You should be careful about wanting anything at all," she warns Dr. Jordan, "for you may be punished for it") and mocks. "There's no use of crying over spilt milk if you don't know if the milk is spilt or not," she says dismissively of predestination.

Ultimately, though, Alias Grace is an examination of the tenebrous nature of truth. Grace's declaration that "we are what we remember" may be a comfort to conscience, but it's also a warning.

If you can't always be certain of just what you're seeing in Alias Grace, S.W.A.T. is just about the direct opposite. Now in its third incarnation, this cop drama is the same old collection of cliches—hot-tempered rookie, weary old vet, more flying lead than a Raqqa Friday night—that it's been these past four decades.

S.W.A.T. was originally conceived in 1975 as a civilian replacement for military shows like Combat! that had fallen out of favor during the Vietnam war; the idea was that all that bang-bang would be socially acceptable if it was directed at American criminals instead of German and Japanese draftees.

That theory didn't work out; S.W.A.T. immediately came under attack by TV-cleaner-uppers for its violence (which was remarkable for the time), the ratings floundered, and it was gone in a season in a half. For reasons unfathomable even to the highest of Hollywood's voodoo priests, it keeps getting revived for movie and TV remakes. I'd like to say this new CBS version will be the last, but I don't want to anger Russian hackers by butting into the fake news landscape.

S.W.A.T.'s co-executive producer Shawn Ryan is best-known for The Shield, a rogue cop show which plumbed the limits of how far Americans were willing to go to protect themselves in the post-9/11 world. He and colleague Aaron Rahsaan Thomas are trying something similar with S.W.A.T., recasting it into a clash of identity politics vs. thin-blue-line loyalty for black cops in the age of Black Lives Matter.

Give them credit for trying a different take on cop shows, but S.W.A.T. simply falls flat in every conceivable way. Just as in 1975, the only thing interesting about the show is Barry De Vorzon's theme song. Can Welcome Back, Kotter be far behind?